Cross-Cultural Communication
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Cross-Cultural Communication

Theory and Practice

B. Hurn, B. Tomalin

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eBook - ePub

Cross-Cultural Communication

Theory and Practice

B. Hurn, B. Tomalin

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About This Book

A comprehensive survey of the key areas of research in cross-cultural communication, based on the authors' experience in organizing and delivering courses for undergraduate and postgraduate students and in business training in the UK and overseas.

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Year
2013
ISBN
9780230391147
1
What is Cross-Cultural Communication?
Summary
Influence of various disciplines on cultural studies
Language and thought debate
Semiotics
Definitions of culture
Corporate culture
Communication styles
Barriers to effective cross-cultural communication
Problems of cross-cultural communication
Perception, reality and stereotypes
What influences our cross-cultural effectiveness?
Introduction
This first chapter looks at the influence of other disciplines on cultural studies. It examines different definitions of ‘culture’ and ‘communication’ and looks at key areas of cultural diversity in visible behaviour and underlying values. It analyses strategies for optimizing successful communication with people of other cultures and overcoming the barriers to cross-cultural communication.
Many cross-cultural relationships break down because of failures in communication. This is not just due to speaking different languages, although that is certainly part of the problem; it is also due to different understandings of communication itself. In Chapter 4 we examine the role of the English language as arguably the prime medium of international communication worldwide. In this chapter we examine the role of communication itself in facilitating or hindering international exchange.
Cross-cultural communication is a multifaceted subject which has elements from a number of disciplines:
  • anthropology;
  • linguistics;
  • philosophy;
  • psychology.
Cross-cultural communication is about the way people from different cultures communicate when they deal with each other either at a distance or face to face. Communication can involve spoken and written language, body language and the language of etiquette and protocol.
In essence there are two main schools of research:
a) the Theory and Research (sociology and communications) school;
b) the Theory into Practice school (an interdisciplinary approach using psychology, anthropology, sociology and linguistics).
How linguistics influences communication
The key influences are the study of semiotics, the study of signs, and the study of the relationship between language and thought and language and culture.
There are three interrelated questions:
  • Does the way we use language influence the way we think?
  • Does the way we think influence the language we use?
  • Does culture influence language or is it the other way round?
Semiotics
Semiotics was introduced by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). It is defined as ‘the study of signs and symbols and their use in interpretation’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Saussure put forward the idea that language is a cultural phenomenon and that it produces meaning in a special way. He developed the theory that any linguistic item such as a word represents a sign. A sign has three basic characteristics: it has a concrete form, it refers to something other than itself and it is recognized by other people as a sign. The physical form of a sign he called the ‘signifier’. The mental association it refers to is the ‘signified’.
To illustrate the concept, we can take the word ‘friend’. A friend may mean someone who is not hostile to you, someone with whom you have a friendly association, a close lifelong buddy or someone who opposes the same things that you do. Similarly, the word ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ may signify a person you are going out with or in other countries simply a friend with no sexual connotation at all. The point is that ‘friend’ is a common word in all languages, but has very different connotations according to the society that uses it. Therefore, part of cultural study is to find out whether the same words mean the same thing in different cultures.
Language and thought
The first academic cultural studies were carried out by anthropologists in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were centred in the USA on the Native Americans. They wanted to understand the cultures of the rapidly disappearing Native-American tribes and, in particular, the study of their languages. They attempted to answer the question ‘which came first, language or thought?’. Was it the cultural features which then gave rise to the language needed to express them or did the language itself condition how people thought about their society? If the language came first, did that limit how people thought about their society? Briefly summarized, the debate is whether language determines what we experience and how we see the world or whether our experience of the world determines how we think about it and how we then express it.
There has been much debate as to which comes first, that is, language or thought. This debate was continued by the American linguists and anthropologists Edward Sapir and his pupil Benjamin-Lee Whorf, who also had a special interest in American-Indian languages. They developed the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which was based on linguistic determinism, in other words the proposition that language determines the way we think and speak. Sapir emphasized that the real world is, to a large extent, built upon the language habits of the group. We see, hear and otherwise experience as we do because of the language habits of our community, which predispose us towards certain choices of interpretation.
The cultural anthropologist and ethnologist Franz Boas established the link between language and behaviour from his studies of native American communities. He concluded that: ‘The peculiar characteristics of languages are clearly reflected in the views and customs of the people of the world’ (Boas, 1938: 31). He maintained that it was necessary to view the world around us through the eyes of other cultures if we really wanted to understand it.
However, Noam Chomsky (1975) supports the existence of linguistic universals (universal grammar), but rejects the existence of cultural universals. Chomsky is supported by Steven Pinker, who resists the idea that language shapes thought.
Modern linguists tend to put the emphasis on the potential for thinking to be influenced rather than unavoidably determined by language. The American researcher Lena Boroditsky (2001) also criticizes the polarization of thought which leads to thinking that one feature influences the other. She maintains that there is a symbiotic relationship between language and the way we think about culture, with each constantly influencing the other.
In the language versus culture debate, it is clear that sharing a language implies sharing a culture; for example, in Belgium, where Flemish and French are the main shared languages, the scores of the Flemish and French-speaking regions are on Hofstede’s four dimensions of culture (see Chapter 2) very similar to each other, but different from those of the Netherlands.
Without knowing the language well, one misses a lot of the subtleties of a culture, for example, humour, and one is forced to remain a relative outsider. Therefore, in the cross-cultural encounter, experienced travellers recognize that it is prudent to avoid jokes and irony until they are sure of the other culture’s perception of what represents acceptable humour: ‘The essence of effective cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing the right responses than sending the right message’ (Hall and Hall, 1990: 4).
Definitions of culture
image
Figure 1.1 Culture – what is it?
As we might expect, there are many definitions of culture. Some of these include the following:
  • ‘Culture is man-made, confirmed by others, conventionalized … It provides people with a meaningful context in which to meet, to think about themselves and face the other world’ (Trompenaars, 2000: 3).
  • ‘A shared system of meanings. It dictates what we pay attention to, how we act and what we value’ (Trompenaars, 1993: 13).
  • ‘Each cultural world operates according to its own internal dynamics, its own principles and its own laws – written and unwritten. Even time and space are unique to each culture. There are, however, some common threads that run through all cultures’ (Hall and Hall, 1990: 3).
It would seem that a comprehensive workable definition of culture is based on the belief that its value systems lie at its core. These are what defines a particular culture. It includes its norms of behaviour, beliefs, aesthetic standards, patterns of thinking and styles of communication which a particular group of people have developed over time to ensure their survival.
Culture is therefore socially, and not biologically, constructed. Individuals are socialized into a particular culture and their individuality is developed within the overall context of that culture. All people carry within them patterns of thinking, feeling and behavioural responses which have been learned throughout their lifetime. Much of this is acquired during early childhood, when a person is most susceptible to learning and assimilating.
We can summarize these definitions to say that culture is a system of shared beliefs and values which are learned rather than inherited. It is composed of those values and beliefs, norms, symbols and ideologies that make up the total way of life of a people. Culture has also been defined as a form of ‘map’ which each of us has implanted in us by the society into which we are born. This ‘map’ defines reality, sets the guidelines for behaviour, thus developing our value system, and establishes the rules for problem solving or explaining events that are not normally encountered.
In most Western languages, ‘culture’ is taken to mean ‘civilization’, ‘education’, ‘art’. This is culture in a narrow sense. However, culture is also a form of mental programming. As soon as certain patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour have been established, for the individual to learn something different, the old patterns need to be unlearned. These patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour can indeed be described as a form of mental programming, using a computer analogy, and have been called ‘mental software’, extending the analogy. Indeed, Hofstede describes culture as: ‘The collective programming of the mind, which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another’ (1994: 5). What we ‘learn’ is, in fact, modified by the influence of ‘collective programming’ (that is, culture) as well as by our own unique personal experiences throughout life.
A useful method is to divide culture into implicit culture – basic assumptions which produce norms and values which show in the explicit culture – observable reality which includes language, food, music, dress, literature, architecture, public emotion, work ethic, noise, physical contact and so on.
Oberg’s iceberg analogy
The Danish writer Kalvero Oberg (1960) uses the analogy of an iceberg to describe visible and invisible culture. Visible culture is what appears above the waves, for example, the explicit culture referred to above. This can be relatively easily observed, even by those who have only a limited exposure to a new culture, for example, tourists and infrequent business travellers, although its significance may not be fully recognized. The invisible culture is what lies below the waves: the implicit culture. This includes assumptions, values, attitudes towards authority, risk taking, punctuality, communication patterns, how status is defined and how power is distributed in society. The assumptions, at the deepest level, are the most important levels of culture and the most difficult to understand. We can at least be aware of the differences that exist and can develop sensitivity so ...

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